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When Tayo arrives in New Laguna from Los Angeles, his Auntie takes him in and nurses him, as she took him in as a child in order to hide the shame of his mother, who was pregnant by a white man. Auntie, always eager to gain the recognition of her neighbors and friends for her burdens and hardships, raised Tayo alongside her own son, Rocky. Recuperating in her house, Tayo realizes that she still changes the sheets on Rocky and Josiah's beds weekly, as if there were still alive. When Auntie changes Tayo's sheets, she puts him into Rocky's bed. The experience is so traumatic for Tayo that he vomits. Daylight also makes him vomit, so he lies in the dark where he does not have to look at the mementos of Rocky's life, crying. Grandma, sitting in the dark by the stove, listens to Tayo cry and vomit. Since Rocky and Josiah's deaths, Robert, Auntie's husband, has a few more responsibilities, although most responsibilities belong to the women. Robert is the first person to chat with Tayo and tell him that he is glad to have Tayo back home.
Tayo feels that he is getting worse and wants to return to the hospital. He calls to his grandmother to tell her, but before he says anything, Grandma says he needs a medicine man. Auntie protests that rumors will start anew, as they did with Tayo's mother and the white men, and with Tayo's uncle Josiah and the Mexican woman. Grandma doesn't care about gossip. Auntie argues that the army doctors had prescribed no medicine men, but she accepts that Old Ku'oosh, the medicine man, will be called. She thinks one day she will be able at least to say "I told you so" as she did about Sis, Tayo's mother, who was almost run off the reservation by the village officers.
Ku'oosh arrives, and Old Grandma and Auntie leave him and Tayo alone. In the old dialect, explaining the origins of each idea, he reminds Tayo of the sacred places on the reservation. He spends a long time explaining to Tayo how the world is fragile and intricate. Tayo tells Ku'oosh that, as far as he knew, he did not kill anyone. Ku'oosh says that you cannot kill without knowing it, but Tayo thinks this is based on an understanding of the world that cannot account for modern warfare. Still, Ku'oosh sets Tayo up to go through the ancient rituals for cleansing after you have killed someone in battle, in a poem which explains the ceremony and warns that without these rituals your dreams will be haunted.
Before he leaves, Ku'oosh warns Tayo that while the ritual has helped some of the young men who returned from the war, it has not helped all of them. The old cures do not work as they used to since the white men came, and Ku'oosh fears what will happen if Tayo and the others are not cured. Ku'oosh leaves, and Tayo remains in bed, thinking of a story on a man who cursed the rain and had monstrous dreams. When he wakes, Auntie feeds him blue cornmeal mush, in accordance with the ritual. Tayo eats it and does not vomit. He no longer cares if he dies. He is able to eat, to go outside, and to sleep through the night. Not caring about being alive, it becomes much easier to live.
Tayo goes to Dixie Tavern with Harley, Emo, and Leroy, who were also in the war. As the other men get drunk, Tayo realizes how the alcohol dulls the pain and anger of the veterans. The guys and Tayo tell stories of their time in the army.
All of the younger Native Americans are caught in the conflict between their values and traditions and those of United States; Tayo's case is only an extreme example. Auntie, Tayo's mother, and all of Tayo's friends experience similar conflicts. The problem long predates World War II. Auntie's character also demonstrates that the division between positive and negative does not run solely along Native and non-Native American lines. While some of Auntie's problematic behavior comes from her attempts to negotiate between two cultures, her preference for her own son and her subsequent mistreatment of Tayo are simply part of her own character. While the novel upholds Native American views and values, it does not present a simplistic praise of all that is Native American.
The main character and the majority of the secondary characters in Ceremony are men, however the balance of power between women and men is remarkably even. In the traditional stories, the gods and the sacred animals are fairly evenly distributed between men and women, giving men and women equal symbolic power in the story. Although the medicine men who we meet are men, they talk of medicine women who have predated them. The only elder in Tayo's family is a woman, and clearly the women control not only the symbolic but also the material wealth and power of the family. Since no Native American women served in World War II, in order to tell the story of that experience, Silko, herself a woman, had to chose a male protagonist. In interviews, Silko has also commented that she hoped in this novel to discuss basic problems and desires that exceed or go deeper than gender divisions.
The use of the English language in the novel is problematized as the narrator specifies that old Ku'oosh speaks in the old dialect, that he explains the deep connotations and significations of the words he uses. As we learn that each word has unique and extremely important meanings, we are reminded that we are reading a story in English when much of the conversation in it originally took place in Laguna. Our understanding of the subtle meanings of each word may not be perfect. But of course the novel is written in English and therefore is intended for an English-speaking audience. This sets up a tension between accessibility and inaccessibility, which should keep the reader slightly uncomfortable. Although the story is told, the narrator is careful to specify that it contains some subtleties and secrets that it does not reveal completely. What exactly those secrets and subtleties are is less important than the fact that they exist. In fact, the narrator explains in great detail the subtleties of Ku'oosh's words, but the reminder that they are not spoken in English holds a place for that which may not be shared.
If the Native American tradition contains some things that the English of the United States cannot understand, the reverse is also true. The crises on the reservation results form the old Native American medicine and ceremonies no longer being effective in the face of the influences and infiltrations of US culture.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Ceremony!